A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019)

I hope you know that you made today a very special day by just your being you. There’s no one in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are. 1990s New York. Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an investigative journalist for Esquire magazine who receives an assignment to profile beloved children’s educational TV host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood . He approaches the interview with typical hard-nosed scepticism, as he finds it hard to believe that anyone can have such a good nature. But Roger’s empathy, kindness and decency chips away at Vogel’s jaded outlook on life. He’s happily married to Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) with a young baby but the encounter with this unique celebrity forces the reporter to reconcile with his painful past, starting with his sister’s wedding which is attended by the father Jerry (Chris Cooper) he utterly loathes and they have a violent fight ... I don’t eat anything that had a mother. The general truth about Tom Hanks is, he’s a saint (even with that early, uh, brush with a cocaine habit). And Rogers’ saintliness is put to the test in this construction. The overall effect is to render Hanks’ patented sincerity inauthentic. The melding of the real with toytown is creepy as … whatever you’re having yourself. Much of this rings false and frankly sinister. The point where Lloyd is miniaturised to enter the TV world is like a bad trip and cheap psychology as if Screenwriting 101 and Self-Help got scrambled in the manipulation blender.  You have to care about Lloyd’s problem to empathise with this concept. I didn’t.  Adapted from Tom Junod’s article Can You Say … Hero? by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harper. Directed by Marielle Heller. Anything mentionable is manageable

Luce (2019)

Luce

Keep in mind that for her this knowledge is incidental but for you it could be a matter of life and death. A liberal-minded couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter Edgar (Tim Roth), are forced to reconsider their image of the black son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr ) they adopted from war-torn Eritrea after they discover he has written a disturbing essay for his class at school.  A star athlete and debater and the envy of the other black kids who appear to be failing themselves by  becoming stereotypes, he is being challenged by his history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) in this project in which he has adopted the voice of revolutionary Frantz Fanon, appearing to endorse ‘necessary violence’. At the same time Wilson has found illegal fireworks in his locker and she brings it up with the Edgars who decide not to mention it to Luce. They start to doubt their son and look at him as though he is manipulating them and everyone else and reverting to his origins in order to stay on top of the class … I feel like you are all waiting for me to confirm this thing you are afraid to say aloud. Adapted by director Julius Onah from J.C. Lee’s titular stage play, this is a morally-driven effort to interrogate race, tokenism and politics using the higher expectations applied to black kids to raise them up. However the message is confused with the subplot involving Spencer’s mentally ill sister and the framing of a thriller throwing a spanner in the works:  you expect her to turn into Ma again. Watts and Roth end up questioning the choice to adopt when what he really wants is a baby of their own. They called their son ‘Luce’ because she couldn’t pronounce his African name. Then the issue of teenage sex arises with a girl that their son allegedly protected from sexual assault but whom he happens to be dating. There is a raft of possible duplicities which he appears to have practised and carried off with a winning smile. The ending is unsettling and inconclusive and dramatically false. This smug pointless provocation about Great White Saviours and guilt is just annoying and the last shot will just confirm anti-black prejudice whether in America or anywhere else. I wanted something simple and normal. Our lives didn’t have to be a political statement

 

To Each His Own (1946)

To Each His Own

Are you proud of your life? In World War 2 London, fire wardens Josephine ‘Jody’ Norris (Olivia de Havilland) and Lord Desham (Roland Culver) keep a lonely vigil. When Jody saves Desham’s life, they become better acquainted. With a bit of coaxing, the ageing spinster tells the story of her life, leading to a flashback of her life in upstate New York town where is the daughter of pharmacist Dan (Griff Barnett) and she is proposed to by both Alex Piersen (Philip Terry) and travelling salesman Mac Tilton (Bill Goodwin) but she turns them both down. A disappointed Alex marries Corinne (Mary Anderson). When handsome US Army Air Service fighter pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) flies in to promote a bond drive, he and Jody quickly fall in love, though they have only one night together. Months later she gives birth to his son in a New York hospital and her plans to adopt the baby by stealth go wrong when Corinne’s newborn dies and she and Alex take in the child, known as Griggsy.  Bart has died in the war and then Jody’s father dies and she has to sell up. She starts up a cosmetics business in NYC under cover of Mac’s former bootlegging enterprise and reveals to Corinne she’s been propping up Alex’ failing business and will continue to do so but she wants the baby – her son – however the boy misses his ‘mother’ … You sin – you pay for it all the rest of your life. A morality tale that doesn’t moralise – that’s quite a feat to pull off but master producer and screenwriter Charles Brackett (with Jacques Théry) does it. This miracle of straightforward storytelling never falls into the trap of over-sentimentality and is helped enormously by a performance of grace notes and toughness by de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her role as the unwed mother who through the worst of ironies loses access to her own baby when a finely executed plan goes wrong. Her ascent through the business world is born of necessity and grim ambition to retrieve her son – and the scene when she has to admit there’s more to parenting than giving birth is one of the finest of the actress’ career. Just bringing a child into the world doesn’t make you a mother … it’s being there … it’s all the things I’ve missed. The subject of illegitmacy is handled without fuss and de Havilland is surrounded by fine performances, acting like a sorbet to her rich playing of a woman whose coldness is pierced by the thoughts of her lost son: Culver is excellent as the no-nonsense English aristo who engineers a reconciliation; Anderson is fine as the flip rival who gains the upper hand while knowing her husband still loves his childhood sweetheart; and Lund scores in his debut in the double role as the flyer chancing his arm at a one-night stand and then as his own clueless son twenty years later, wanting nothing more than a night with his fiancée. A refreshing take on that strand of stories known as the Independent Woman sub-genre. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.  I’m a problem mother

 

City That Never Sleeps (1953)

City That Never Sleeps

I could make a big man out of you. Disillusioned Chicago cop Johnny Kelly (Gig Young) wants to quit the force and make a new life with strip tclub performer Sally ‘Angel Face’ Connors (Mala Powers), leaving wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) who tells her father-in-law, Sgt. John Kelly Senior (Otto Hulett) she suspects Johnny might be planning on leaving the Chicago PD and believes he can’t stand being outearned by her. Johnny meets big wheel corrupt DA Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold) who blackmails him into transporting former magician now thief Hayes Stewart (William Talman) after a setup later that night across state lines into Indiana because Johnny’s little brother Stubby (Ron Hagerthy) a former bellboy is now involved in his rackets. What Biddel doesn’t know is that his wife Lydia  (Marie Windsor) and Stewart are having an affair and he is being set up instead with Stubby being used as his accomplice in that night’s theft. When John Sr takes Johnny’s call he ends up getting caught in the crossfire …. What he needs is a lesson in ethics. An awesome cult item full of bruised poetry, astonishing camera setups by John (Psycho) Russell, surprising plot twists and pleasurable performances. There are self-conscious references to The Blue Angel; a voiceover out of Dragnet from Chill Wills, Young’s insightful partner for the evening; and Young’s own ‘sour’ character tipping into masochism and creating a bristling set of disarming consequences for all concerned. The screenplay by Steve Fisher has the tropes of a police procedural but it reaches into the gutter and exposes the viscera of desire in the most amazing ways with a Mechanical Man (Wally Cassell) bearing witness to murder from a nightclub window and a chase to the death along the Chicago El. What a film! Directed by John Auer. Restored by Martin Scorsese and shown by that invaluable channel, Talking Pictures. You are sick inside Johnny. Something inside you is all fouled up

Three Men and a Baby (1987)

Three Men and a Baby

This is a girl. Should we be doing this? Architect Peter Mitchell (Tom Selleck), satirist Michael Kellam (Steve Guttenberg), and actor Jack Holden (Ted Danson) are happy bachelors in their shared New York apartment, with frequent parties and flings with women. One day, a baby named Mary arrives on their doorstep with a note revealing she is the result of Jack’s tryst with an actress named Sylvia (Nancy Travis). Jack is in Turkey shooting a movie, and made arrangements with an ad director friend to have a package delivered to the apartment. Jack asked Peter and Michael to keep the delivery a secret per his friend’s wishes; when Mary arrives, they mistakenly believe she is the package. Peter and Michael learn to properly care for Mary, including nappy changes, baths, and feedings. When two criminals (Paul Guilfoyle and Earl Hindman) turn up looking for it they hand her over before they realise their mistake and then receive a visit from a police officer, Sgt Melkowitz (Philip Bosco) before Jack’s unexpectedly early return from Turkey … I’m an actor. I can do a father. A very pleasant remake of Coline Serrau’s French hit Trois hommes et un couffin, adapted by Jim Cruickshank and James Orr, with Selleck and Guttenberg proving a very durable double act giving a whole new meaning to the term homosocial as they attempt to parent a constantly crying infant and find their bachelor lifestyle turned upside down. The drug subplot may be a bit de trop as Celeste Holm (who plays Danson’s mom) said in another movie, but it’s fun and witty with great style while director Leonard Nimoy cleverly makes the most of the opportunity to invest in stunning production design by Peter S. Larkin, calculated to make you drool like a baby with apartment envy. Possibly the only film to unite Mr Spock with Dr Spock. Solid entertainment, this was huge back in the day. Do it our way or this goes down the toilet

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

I Was a Male War Bride theatrical

If the American army says that I CAN be my wife, who am I to dispute them? French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) is assigned to work with American 1st Lieutenant Catherine Gates on a mission to locate a German lens maker Schindler (Martin Miller) in post-war Occupied Germany. Henri and Catherine worked together before and are at daggers drawn. However despite the initial problems between the two, with only Catherine being allowed to drive a motorcycle to Bad Neuheim and Henri forced to sit in a sidecar, it’s not long before their battling turns to romance and they hastily arrange to get married. But a steady stream of bureaucratic red tape ensures the couple cannot be together and with Catherine receiving orders that she’s to be sent home, there is just one option – Henri will have to invoke a War Brides Clause in army regulations and be recognised as Catherine’s bride but to do that he has to disguise himself as a WAC … Oh, no! You mean you and ME? Well, I’d be glad to explain to them. The very idea of any connection is revolting. Shot in the last months of 1948 in post-war Germany, this is resolutely apolitical in the typical manner of producer/director Howard Hawks but it was plagued by problems. Illness meant that the beginning and end of the midpoint sequence – Grant vanishing into a haystack and coming out the other side – were shot several months apart, with Grant 37 pounds lighter from hepatitis when we meet him again. Sheridan was also ill, with pleurisy. Hawks got hives. Even co-writer Charles Lederer got sick and Orson Welles stepped in to write a scene (allegedly). When the production moved to London for the interiors they were subjected to work-to-rule habits of the British unions which prolonged things further. However it’s still fun to watch for its low-key fashion rather than the antic hilarity of Hawks and Grant’s earlier Bringing Up Baby.  Despite its being promoted on the basis of Grant’s cross-dressing, that only takes place in the last 10 minutes and it works because Grant listened to Hawks and didn’t do effeminate, he plays it totally straight, a man dressed in women’s clothes – and it ain’t pretty. This is a whip smart attack on bureaucracy and transatlantic misunderstandings and the whole plot basically revolves around coitus postponus because even when the squabbling couple agree to the three marriages deemed necessary to be legal they still can’t get five minutes together, not even in a haystack (which led to their marriage in the first place). It fits nicely into that crossover between screwball and army farce with the entire construction designed to be an affront to Grant’s dignity and an essay on sexual frustration. That said, it’s slow to set up and a lot of the jokes are sight gags, relying on Grant’s acrobatic background to pull them off, while Sheridan is a great broad in the best sense, fizzing with common sense and sex appeal, the very incarnation of a good sport. Hawks’ very young girlfriend Marion Marshall has a nice role as her colleague who gets to relay verbally what women see in Grant and the whole thing is a very relaxed entertainment, the antithesis of the circumstances in which it was apparently produced. It marked Hawks’ and Grant’s fourth collaboration and Grant always said it was his favourite of his own films while it was the third highest grossing of Hawks’ career. Adapted by Lederer & Leonard Spigelgass and Hagar Wilde from  I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress, a biographical account of Belgian officer Henri Rochard’s [the pseudonym for Roger Charlier] experience entering the US when he married an American nurse during WW2. My name is Rochard. You’ll think I’m a bride but actually I’m a husband. There’ll be a moment or two of confusion but, if we all keep our heads, everything will be fine

About a Boy (2002)

About a Boy

I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards.  Will Freeman (Hugh Grant) is a wealthy child-free and hedonistic thirtysomething London bachelor who, in search of available women, invents an imaginary son and starts attending single parent meetings claiming he’s been left with a two year-old son. As a result of his attraction to Suzie (Victoria Smurfit), he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) a solemn twelve-year-old boy with problems at school and a suicidal hippie mother Fiona (Toni Collette). Gradually, Will and Marcus become friends and Marcus pretends to be his son so Will can pursue a relationship with single mother Rachel (Rachel Weisz).  As Will teaches Marcus how to fit in, Marcus helps Will to finally be a man ... Two people aren’t enough. You need backup. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, this has all the elements of a mawkish soap but the performances and humour raise it to another level. Grant’s always been a great cad but here he also learns lessons – he already knows he doesn’t want to be a conventional husband or have responsibility but through friendship with this odd kid he learns how to be authentically emotional and to be a good guy. The fact that he’s hanging out with a twelve-year old boy leads Fiona to confront him in a restaurant where everyone immediately assumes he’s a pederast in one of the best scenes in the film. Hoult is properly strange looking (the wonder is that Will takes him shoe shopping rather than for a haircut) but the point is that both of them are outcasts in their own way and need to grow up by facing their fears – which brings the film to its penultimate scene at a school concert which presents the potential for lifelong humiliation. The songs are intrinsic to the storytelling as is customary with Hornby’s work and it’s a mosaic of cool and cringe, including the horrible Christmas song composed by Will’s father which afforded him his louche lifestyle in the first place. A film of exceptional charm. As I sat there I had a strange feeling. I was enjoying myself

Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)

Little Fauss and Big Halsy

I was going faster than I ever went in my whole life, then I fell off. Pro motorcycle racer Halsy Knox (Robert Redford) runs into amateur Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard) after a race held near Phoenix, Arizona. They strike up a friendship as Fauss is attracted to Halsy’s carefree lifestyle. But Fauss’s father Seally (Noah Beery Jr.) regards Halsy as a bad influence and refuses to help Halsy when his truck breaks down. Halsy tricks the admiring Fauss into repairing his motorcycle for free at the shop where he works. When Fauss breaks his leg, Halsy, who has been barred from racing for drinking on the track, proposes that they form a partnership in which Halsy would race under Fauss’s name with Fauss serving as the mechanic. Fauss joins Halsy on the motorcycle racing circuit despite his parents’ disapproval. Fauss is constantly confronted with his inferiority to Halsy, both on and off the racetrack. Their partnership is finally broken when wealthy drop-out Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton) arrives at the racetrack and immediately attaches herself to Halsy, despite Fauss’ keen attention. Fauss returns home to find his  beloved father has died.  Halsy later visits him and attempts to ditch Rita, who is now heavily pregnant. Fauss refuses to let Halsy pawn her off on him and informs him that he plans to reenter the racing circuit. They race against each other at the Sears Point International Raceway. Halsy’s motorcycle breaks down. As he watches from the side of the track, he hears the announcement that Fauss has taken the lead… Well if that’s friendship, I’m aghast. Screenwriter Charles Eastman is now probably better known for his sister Carole aka Adrien (Five Easy Pieces) Joyce, than anything he himself wrote, including this, one of the more obsure biker flicks despite its big-name star. And yet Redford could say of it, That was the best screenplay of any film I’ve ever done, in my opinion. It was without a doubt the most interesting, the funniest, the saddest, the most real and original. He seems born to play the shirtless, feckless, ruthless handsome womaniser leaving a trail of destruction in his wake who only loses his shit-eating grin when things don’t go his way. I make it a rule to never make promises. Beery and Lucille Benson as Pollard’s parents are like a new generation’s Min and Bill. They’re so good they deserve a whole story of their own. Charles and Carole were Hollywood kids, if hardly upper echelon – their father worked as a grip at Warners while their mother was Bing Crosby’s secretary. Eastman was actually one of Hollywood’s most reliable script doctors through the Sixties, helping out on productions as diverse as Bunny Lake is Missing and The Planet of the Apes. He was something of an eccentric in that brotherhood of writers who wanted to be directors, inspiring people like Robert Towne with one of his unfilmed works which circulated in the Fifties, Honeybear, I Think I Love You. Towne remarked, For me, it was quite a revelation because it was the first contemporary screenplay I had read that just opened up the possibilities of everything that you could put into a screenplay in terms of language and the observations of contemporary life. It was a stunning piece of work, and I think it influenced a lot of us, even though it wasn’t made. Everybody tried to get it made, but Charlie was very particular about how it was going to be made, and in some ways I think he kept it from being made. Charlie was an original, that’s all. He used language in a way that I hadn’t seen used before. Towne speculated that his sister’s acclaimed screenplay for Five Easy Pieces was actually about Charles. Charlie was just one of those shadowy figures that I think cast a longer shadow over most of us than was generally recognised. Eastman would finally make his one and only foray into directing three years after this production with The All-American Boy, a boxing film starring Jon Voight. This is distinguished not just by the performances of opposites (a sexy opportunistic louse taking advantage of an ordinary decent rube) but by the evocative feelings it inspires – you get a real sense of character, predicament and place, indicating what Towne might have seen in Eastman’s writing – a kind of poetry, perhaps. That’s great screenwriting. It ain’t how you do, it’s where you’ve been. It feels as though it’s minting new archetypes it’s so fresh, vivid and affecting. It hits home even further in the special soundtrack of songs performed by Johnny Cash and written by him, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan – arguably their on-the-nose content is the only thing that dates this, if at all. An unsung Seventies film and Pollard is just fabulous as Little. Sumptuously shot in Panavision by Ralph Woolsey on location in Antelope Valley, Sonoma County and Sears Point Raceway in San Francisco. Produced by Al Ruddy, Gray Frederickson (they would make The Godfather in a couple of years) and actor Brad Dexter – it was one of four films he produced. Wonderfully directed by Sidney J. Furie. What else is there to do?

Shadows and Fog (1991)

Shadows and Fog

I was just pointing out to these lovely ladies the metaphors of perversion. Europe, between the wars. Kleinman (Woody Allen), a cowardly bookkeeper, is woken in the night by a mob of vigilantes and assigned the task of finding a strangler on the loose in the fog-shrouded town where the circus is visiting. Meanwhile, after a lover’s quarrel with her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) after seeing him flirt with trapeze artist Marie (Madonna), sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) escapes into the city, eventually joining up with Kleinman for support as they make their way through the ominous streets and foggy back alleys. Kleinman meets up with a mortician (Donald Pleasance) who’s dissecting the murderer’s victims; while Irmy encounters a prostitute (Lily Tomlin) who offers her a place to stay at the brothel where she works and wealthy student Jack (John Cusack) chooses to sleep with her rather than the professionals present.  She enjoys it and wants to donate the money to charity. When certain circumstantial evidence points towards Kleinman, he must prove his innocence as the police take interest and vigilantes assemble … There isn’t a whore in the world that’s worth $700. The first screening may have had the studio suits immobilised and looking like they’d been paralysed with curare, as Woody Allen recalls in his memoir, and this adaptation of his play Death is an admittedly uneasy mix. It’s part German Expressionist serial killer flick, circus picture, sex comedy, cowardly nebbish tale and social melodrama – but it’s still funny as hell when it hits the right notes, even though some of the cast (David Ogden Stiers, Kurtwood Smith) apparently think they’re in a different film altogether. But who doesn’t love Donald Pleasence as the mortician about to get his? And what about Kathy Baker, Lily Tomlin (especially Lily Tomlin) and Jodie Foster as chilled-out smart alecky prostitutes (even if they aren’t given proper names)? There’s a myriad of funny moments and lines with Allen giving most of them to himself but Farrow gets some of them, including, I always think you can tell a lot about an audience by how they respond to a good sword swallower. And howzabaout the great Kenneth Mars as a drunken magician? I once plucked a rabbit from between the bosoms of the Queen of Denmark. Small rabbit. Small bosoms. A hoot, in fits and starts, and so much more fun than its reputation suggests. Miraculous production design by Santo Loquasto, building an entire set at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NYC and shot by Carlo Di Palma. It’s drenched in an atmosphere equally mysterious and amusing with a sort of sinister undertaste, alluding to Lang, Pabst, Murnau but also Hitchcock because we don’t really care about the strangler McGuffin a whit. He’s played by Michael Kirby. See? Told you. Soundtrack by Kurt Weill – well who else could it possibly have been? Written, directed by and starring Woody Allen as the Kafkaesque Little Man. I can’t make a leap of faith necessary to believe in my OWN existence

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)

The Pumpkin Eater

You should see the way men look at me. They still look at me. Jo (Anne Bancroft) leaves her second husband Giles (Richard Johnson) with whom she has five children in the countryside where they live in a rundown ramshackle barn and marries his screenwriter friend, Jake Armitage (Peter Finch). She moves with six of her eight children to his big house in Hampstead while her eldest are at boarding school. She soon finds that Jake doesn’t want more children and is playing around, including with Philpott (Maggie Smith), a young woman lodging with them. When he impregnates Jo, she doesn’t tell him but reveals it to her mother at her father’s (Cedric Hardwicke) funeral.  Her mother (Rosalind Atkinson) subsequently tells Jake and he asks Jo to have an abortion. Afterwards she is approached by his colleague Bob Conway (James Mason) who informs her that his wife is now pregnant by Jake …… Perhaps sex is something you feel you must sanctify by incessant reproduction. Harold Pinter’s scrupulous adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s landmark semi-autobiographical novel is scalpel-sharp, lethally aimed at men who are never satisfied with women – when they have children, when they have none. And the men take no responsibility for the situation, either way.  Everything is the woman’s fault. The picture of fathers is damning but fascinating, as Hardwicke and Alan Webb’s (as the elder Armitage) scenes demonstrate. This battle of the sexes drama seems relentlessly classist yet is a universal story with a terrible message for the female of the species, forever destined to be deemed slatternly mother or hopeless whore. Bancroft is harrowing and superb as the vulnerable protagonist, but so too is Finch as the self-justifying philanderer. And what startling scenes there are – Jo being confronted by a total stranger (Yootha Joyce) in the hairdresser’s after her photo is featured in a magazine; her meltdown, in Harrods, of all places!;  her mother revealing in her bereavement to an unwitting and horrified Jake that Jo is pregnant yet again;  the meeting with Conway at the zoo when he reveals that while she was having her abortion and being sterilised Jake had impregnated his wife in yet another of his endless infidelities. The sleight of hand never stops; the loneliness and emotional violence of a fecund marriage is stripped bare; while living with someone is dramatised as a gaslighting paranoia-inducing nightmare of betrayals, lies and extreme humiliation in a society where femininity is medicalised, motherhood a branch of psychiatry, civility a very thin veneer over insecurity and terminal delusion. Eric Porter as the psychiatrist to whom Jo pours out her supposed problems has a great scene, culminating in Bancroft advising him to steer clear of Tenerife for his water-skiiing holiday. It’s absurd and ridiculous and brilliantly Pinteresque. Still a deeply disturbing narrative of men and women in what is indubitably a man’s world, equality a fairytale ending never to be. Directed by Jack Clayton. All she wants is to sit in a corner and give birth